By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
And Paul Pierce said this series was over.
The Celtics laid waste to the Bucks on their home floor in Game 1, and Joe Murray and I took postgame calls from fans who believed the Celtics had finally found their golden goose. We looked past an underwhelming first round sweep of Indiana and 82 games of lackluster regular season data and trumpeted the arrival of a team we’d been waiting to show up almost as long as the final season of Game of Thrones.
In retrospect, Game 1 was the absolute worst thing that could happen.
This Celtics season wasn’t about hope, but entitlement. That’s how it goes in the most decorated pro sports city of the past two decades. Anything that’s not winning is a disaster. Danny Ainge had made all the right moves, so the return of two All-Stars to a roster that went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last year meant an automatic berth in the Big Boy Finals, right? And then, Anthony Davis comes to town and puts them over the top.
Instead, the Celtics are destined to end up among the roadside detritus that lines the path to the Larry O’Brien Trophy, without even having a good story to tell.
Game 5 should bring things to a merciful conclusion. The Almighty Schedule Gods, who’ve blessed us with a whole three games over the last 10 days, sped up the excruciating slog by giving the Celtics just one day to regroup at a time they need it the most. The series has also shifted to Wisconsin, which I’m sure is great for the psyche. All of the factors that previously caused us to suspend our disbelief are out the window.
For instance, you could chalk up Game 2 as an off night (nine points on 4-of-18 shooting) for Kyrie Irving. But he’s shot 15-for-44 in the two games since and has been a liability on the other end. Despite the ample rest, he appears drained and detached, his misguided forays to the basket to feather layup attempts through tree limbs hitting all of the hard parts of the basket on the way down.
This isn’t the Irving we’ve observed, slicing through the opposition with surgical precision. But the Bucks defense deserves plenty of credit, as well.
Over three games, Milwaukee also slowed the faucet known as Boston’s supporting cast to a drip. After a tidy 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting in Game 1, Gordon Hayward has averaged 5.7 points on 22.2 percent shooting since. Terry Rozier has gone 3-for-18 over the same time span. With the defense in shambles and an inefficient Irving spinning his wheels, the C’s need more than that from the bench.
After Game 3, you could blame the officials. A physically dominant, 6-foot-11 (did he stop growing yet?) player with the word “freak” in his nickname, for whom it apparently requires two running steps to get from half court to the rim, does not need 22 foul shots foisted upon him by officials like cute onesies gifted an expectant mother at a baby shower. It wasn’t Hack-A-Shaq out there. Unlike players and coaches who use postgame pressers to politick for a future vacation voucher at the foul line, the C’s advocated for swallowing the whistles.
Turns out, the refs put Game 4 on a platter for the Celtics. At one point, Sean Grande remarked that seven of the first 10 foul calls went to Boston’s way. But they couldn’t make their shots, even open ones, and the offense resembled an Antoine Walker heat map in the second half. Meanwhile, Giannis Antetokounmpo staked his claim as the brightest constellation in the series, an unstoppable train that didn’t require a referee’s whistle to blow by Celtic defenders for buckets on missed rotation after missed rotation.
To assume the result will be any different tonight would require adjustments – which Mike Budenholzer and Co. have made – and Brad Stevens seems either unwilling or too restrained by his personnel to submit an effective counterpunch. Just putting Marcus Smart out there isn’t anything more than a temporary salve for a nasty wound.
It’s Milwaukee’s moment. Sure, their offense is just more of the homogenized crap we’ve been fed over the past five years: A bunch of lanky guys and no-name guards bombing away from deep while the superstar tries to get layups or curry favor from officials in the analytical pursuit of a terrible TV product. But it’s working. Would you rather watch the Celtics play Hero Ball and fail? And they’ve put the Green in a vice grip defensively. This shouldn’t come as a surprise for the team with the top offense (118 points per game, the most since the 1991-92 Warriors) and the second best defensive rating during the regular season.
A franchise that has featured names like Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson, Moncrief and Cummings, Allen and Redd, bought a vowel and is ready to solve the puzzle. The answer is Antetokounmpo. The Boston mystique and four consecutive postseason victories over this franchise means little in Game 5. Yeah, the Celtics have come back from down 3-1 before … two years before this graybeard currently hunting-and-pecking at laptop keys on a commuter train was born and when guys like Bird, McHale, Parish, Maxwell and Archibald walked through that door.
They’re not dead yet. But they’ve reached Black Knight territory. They’re staring at an Eastern Conference Finals that, for the first time since 2016, won’t include them.
And that’s just the short-term fallout.
The epitaph for the 2018-19 Celtics will read that they weren’t fun to watch and couldn’t even get out of the second round of the playoffs. But it remains to be seen if it ultimately serves as the undoing of the last six seasons of Boston basketball.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.